A film review by Craig J. Koban February 19, 2018

RANK: #2

PHANTOM THREAD jjjj

2017, R, 130 mins.

 

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock  /  Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock  /  Vicky Krieps as Alma

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

It may sound beyond strange to say this, but Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite directors that has made a fair number of films that I have not liked...at least as much as others have.  When he burst onto the movie scene in the 90s with films like HARD EIGHT and especially BOOGIE NIGHTS (still his best film) and MAGNOLIA (his second best), I honestly thought we were witnessing the birth and growth of one of the most singularly talented American directors in some time.   

Then came strange experimental pictures, like PUNCH DRUNK LOVE (adored by many, but loathed by me), followed by THERE WILL BE BLOOD (masterful in parts, but undisciplined in others), and more recent work like THE MASTER (technically mesmerizing, but dramatically hollow and distancing) culminating with his last film, 2014's INHERENT VICE (an overly long period whodunit mystery noir that was a disjointed endurance test).  Considering that he unquestionably made two of the best films of the 90s that solidified his rightful place among the filmmaking elite, the 2000s and the current decade for Anderson have left me feeling empty, and I was in the minority in thinking that the multiple Oscar nominated cinematic maverick had...lost his creative mojo. 

This rather lengthy preamble brings me, yes, to his latest offering in PHANTOM THREAD, which after several years of intermittently disappointing films from Anderson represents a most welcome and bravura return to form for him.  Not only is this period romance drama as meticulously and painstakingly crafted as anything he's ever done, but PHANTOM THREAD dives head first into the dark and twisted psychological mind games that the director is so supremely skilled at capturing.  His visual command of the film is reliably top notch - which certainly wasn't absent in his previous three films - but I found this tale of a somewhat toxic and mysteriously evolving courtship and marriage - set against the backdrop of 1950s London and within the fine art of dressmaking - so intoxicating to lose oneself in.  I love it when films show me a world largely unseen before in film, and it fascinates me that Anderson, in turn, seems obsessively captivated by it. 

 

 

The overall story here has a deceptive simplicity and straightforward narrative momentum, despite taking some decidedly dark turns towards the unpredictably macabre.  PHANTOM THREAD concerns renowned British dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis, reportedly his last film role before self-imposed retirement), a dedicated and painstaking artist in his trade that also happens to be a confirmed bachelor.  Early on it becomes abundantly clear why he's still single: he's hopelessly enamoured and married to his work.  That, and to call him a nitpicky perfectionist would be a grand understatement.  Everything around him in his life - both in and around his job - has to be just right, regardless of a stitch or hem being slightly out of place on a dress or whether or not butter is used to cook asparagus for dinner appetizers.  Hell, someone preparing their toast in the morning - as minutely inconsequential as it appears - is enough to set him off into a day and morale breaking panic.  This dude is severely high maintenance.   

But he's a superlative craftsman when it comes to the fine art of dressmaking, which has famously set him far apart from others in his trade.  No small detail is left undone (he even sews little messages and sentimental trinkets into the fabric of his gowns to make them all uniquely his own).  Unfortunately, Reynolds finds himself in a creative funk, which catches the eyes of his business partner and sister, Cyril (a delightfully snarky Lesley Manville).  If anything, Reynolds desperately feels that he needs to reclaim his passion for his work and, in turn, find a muse that will inspire him.  This takes him to a fateful meeting one day at an English courtyard restaurant after being served by a somewhat clumsy waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), and from the get-go there's something he finds beguiling about her.  He matter-of-factly asks her out to dinner, which she agrees to, which culminates in him bringing her back up to his studio...but not for sex.  He politely requests to take her exact measurements from head to toe while fitting her for a dress.  Alma becomes smitten with Reynolds, mostly because he's arguably the only man she's experienced that gave her that type of attention before, whereas he's enamored with her because she's rekindled his artistic drive. 

The budding relationship between Reynolds and Alma is the cornerstone to PHANTOM THREAD, and discussing it in any further and specific detail would spoil some of the film's more delicious surprises.  What's most compelling about it, though, is how it becomes a cerebral battle of one-upmanship between them as their romance both blossoms and spirals down some twisted paths.  Their courtship is warm and loving in some instances, only later to be shown as deeply tortured in others.  PHANTOM THREAD becomes unusually haunting - and paradoxically extremely amusing - to watch as we see the ultra uptight dandy that is Reynolds become unglued by the tiniest insignificant action that Alma commits, which usually involves the former breaking out into fits of infantile verbal outbursts.  Alma, on the other hand, is not a meek willed woman that puts up with Reynolds' verbal abuse; she becomes more increasingly infatuated with the prospects of pushing her man's buttons and seeing just how much she can get away with.  Yet, there's this unmistakably weird aura of co-dependency on display here between them: They need each other, even though they both seem to mutually agree that they're a hopelessly bad fit.   

Ultimately, this is what makes PHANTOM THREAD one of Anderson's most compulsively alluring films in many years.  It works as a perversely dark comedy about the nature of relationships and how they become unyieldingly broken, only to be propped up again under some highly peculiar methods.  Anderson's film grabs us from the opening scene and draws us into this world that outwardly looks pristine and orderly, but inwardly has characters that teeter on all out emotional implosion because of their ties to one another.  It's also a razor sharp exploration on relationship power struggles and how people on both sides want control as a form of enabling erotic desires.  Anderson never builds Reynolds and Alma's relationship to preordained conclusions and instead opts for a rather chilling third act that (a) doesn't have a neat and tidy resolution and (b) becomes something profoundly sinister while also having an remarkably offbeat happy ending.  It also makes you rethink Alma completely as a simple soft spoken country girl that has become caught up in the luxurious world that Reynolds' offers up to her.  She's anything but a victim in this film, and the manner she taps into her own, shall we say, sadistic impulses gives her union with Reynolds a whole other chilling layer.   

True to form, Anderson crafts impeccable performances out of his leads, with Daniel Day Lewis predictably leading the charge, playing one of his most fascinatingly rich characters.  Reynolds is shown as a man of dignified manners that's also prone to being ruthlessly dismissive and childishly spiteful when things don't go precisely his way, and Lewis - in pure performance immersive fashion - does a deep dive exploration of this man who's capable of being both a distinguished gentleman and a loathsome social monster from one scene to the next.  The 60-year-old actor's painstakingly layered performance serves as a nice counterpoint to Vicky Krieps' more reserved and quietly modulated work in arguably the trickier character to effectively pull off.  She has to portray a woman swept off her feet by the initial romanticized lifestyle of living under a revered dressmaker, only then to later imbue this woman with an internalized drive to ensure that her domineering husband doesn't completely get the upper emotional hand in their relationship.  Rounding off the performance triumvirate is Lesley Manville's sternly amusing sister to Reynolds, whose blunt declarations to just about everyone around her shows her to be a battle hardened business woman that's not to be trifled with.  She serves as both an enabler to Reynolds' needs that also has - like Alma - power over him as well. 

Even though PHANTOM THREAD is, on paper, about the slow burn on-again/off-again union between Reynolds and Alma, there's also something to be said about it serving as a sly piece of meta commentary about Anderson's own compulsive predilections as a director.  At 47, Anderson has developed a reputation for his filmmaking exactitude, which sort of eerily mirrors the drives of Reynolds as a man that's an orderly and scrupulously defined perfectionist that harbors control freak tendencies.  Now, that's not a knock against Anderson, but he does serve quadruple duty in PHANTOM THREAD as writer, director, cinematographer, and camera operator (the latter two being uncredited).  His fastidious aesthetic focus here yields exquisite results: PHANTOM THREAD - beyond being a riveting character drama - is also one of the year's most handsomely engineered period dramas, replete with Oscar worthy costumes by Mark Bridges, Mark Tildesley's evocative production design, and one of the most beautifully rhythmic music scores of recent memory by Jonny Greenwood (his striking chords become an omnipresent background character in their own right) that all work in concert to craft a portrait of post-war London that's sensationally and gorgeously lived-in.  Anderson's technique is also more stylistically restrained than normal, opting to use Kubrickian long takes and static camera setups to help emphasis the growing emotional claustrophobia between Reynolds and Alma.   

PHANTOM THREAD is so deviously twisted on a dramatic and storytelling level, yet nuanced and lushly romantic in its painterly eye for period detail that makes it feel simultaneously dreamlike and authentically rendered.  The film is so seductive in the mind games it plays with viewers, seeing as it doesn't go down browbeaten scripting paths and ends with anything but a conventional ending for its pair of doomed lovers.  This is a film that's uniquely and wholly within Anderson's creative wheelhouse, and it shows him at complete command of his craft, something that I felt hasn't been seen in nearly twenty years.  Like a gracefully tailored dress, PHANTOM THREAD is constructed with the type of  surgical precision and confidence that made Anderson's early films unqualified classics, and one that has most certainly renewed my lost faith in him as an absolute filmmaking artist.   

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